John Quiggin’s left wing conservatism
Environmentalism has changed the way leftists think about government led social change. Like the natural environment, the social environment is complex and poorly understood. With their oversimplified models, reformers accept serious risk because they don’t see it. Lack of understanding makes them overconfident. As a self confessed conservative social democrat economist John Quiggin argues that the precautionary principle should apply in both environmental and social policy.
Australians have seen many examples of environmental ‘improvements’ which went wrong. When the the Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released cane toads into Queensland in 1935 there was opposition from scientists like Walter Froggett and Roy Kinghorn. But by the time the government acted on these concerns the toads were entrenched and the bureau’s actions irreversible. Unable to imagine the risks involved, the bureau’s experts had been dangerously optimistic about the consequences.
Internationally many agricultural reformers in the 20s and 30s hoped to turn farms into biological factories where the natural landscape and traditional practices would be replaced by rational management. In his book Seeing Like a State James C Scott shows how these reforms were defeated by the planners’ lack of understanding of the processes they were trying to control. Scott argues that rationalist planners discount the value of local traditional practices – bodies of tacit knowledge and skill which have developed incrementally over time.
The followers of social conservatives like Michael Oakeshott have applied the same lessons to social reforms – particularly those which attempt to replace traditional moral habits and practices with abstract principles of social justice. These conservatives argue that leftist reformers are too quick to dismiss the value of traditional family structures, parental authority, the work ethic, and the stigma attached to welfare dependency.
Because many traditional moral institutions are offensive to rationalist principles of equality and social justice, reformers want sweep them aside. Much of the criticism of ‘the elites’ is a reaction to the desire of social reformers to reconstruct mass morality from the top down. For example, supporters of basic income reforms know that their proposals are morally offensive to the majority of voters. However, this moral opposition to something-for-nothing payments tends to be dismissed as ignorance and prejudice.
Social conservatives don’t oppose all change. They see moral practices and values as like languages – constantly adapting through use. What conservatives oppose is radical top-down change. They favor change that’s incremental and combined with trial and error learning. For example, most conservatives believe that while the government should not prevent homosexual couples living together or raising children, it should not set out to legitimate the practice. These conservatives argue that the family is a far more powerful institution than schooling or the media. They don’t pretend to understand how it works or what else in society depends on it functioning the way it does. They are particularly concerned about the effects of rapid change on children.
In the Chicago Tribune last year Elizabeth Marquardt wrote:
Gay and lesbian couples are already raising children, and those children need legal and social protections. Civil unions will achieve that goal. In the meantime, I wonder: Before we continue experiments with marriage–which so far have been led by heterosexuals and too often resulted in children’s pain–could we try to have a serious, calm discussion about what gay marriage might mean?
Unlike many conservatives Marquardt supports government action to strengthen marriage and prevent divorce. "Some argue that government should have no role in marriage", she writes, "but government is already neck-deep in divorce." Governments are already involved in settling custody disputes and making sure that absent fathers contribute financially to their children’s upbringing.
John Quiggin is also cautious about gay marriage. Invoking the precautionary principle he suggests "a gradual, one-step-at-a-time shift in the rules, rather than a radical reform based on purely abstract arguments about equality." Like Marquardt, he sees civil unions as the next step.
In recent years it is the right that has been the most radical and the least cautious. Quiggin has argued that the Thatcher government had a corrosive effect on moral values. Its chief failing was its "lack of any moral depth or concept of social obligation". And in the United States neoconservative senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan condemned the radical welfare reforms of 1996 arguing that:
If ‘conservative’ means anything, it means be careful, be thoughtful, and anticipate the unanticipated or understand that things will happen that you do not expect. And be very careful with the lives of children.
Quiggin challenges the idea that the political right in conservative in this sense. He writes that in recent years "it is the right who have made the most effective use of concentrated power". If being a conservative means "that that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid,
top-down and rationalistic" then he is happy to wear the label.
It would be interesting to see how Quiggin would flesh out a left wing version of conservatism. I’d imagine he wouldn’t have supported "a gradual, one-step-at-a-time" approach to abolishing slavery or ending apartheid. And it’s not clear how far he’s willing to allow the precautionary principle to be invoked by conservative cassandras who claim that every move towards greater equality and tolerance threatens the fragile fabric of society. Policy makers need some way to screen out implausible disaster scenarios designed to stall moderate reforms.
In the US the term ‘left conservatism‘ has been used a term of abuse by theory-mongering academic leftists . Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Richard Rorty, and Alan Sokal have all been labeled as left conservatives. With his well known disdain for postmodernism, perhaps Quiggin would be prepared to wear the label with pride.
Update 1: Culture matters – Michael Oakeshott & the neoconservatives
Andrew Norton doesn’t think Michael Oakeshott can be called a social conservative (see comments thread). While there’s a lot of talk about morality in Oakeshott’s work there very little moralizing. American neoconservatives like Gertrude Himmelfarb worried about the lack of moralizing in Oakeshott’s conservatism. She believed that his detached attitude to practical moral issues was dangerous. I think that both Oakeshott and the American neoconservatives are social conservatives and that the differences between them may be shallower than many people think. Both stress the importance of culture. They differ about what governments should do to protect it.
Adrift at sea – Oakeshott’s idea of a moral tradition
Oakeshott’s dangerous idea is that our moral habits and sense of purpose have no rational foundations. Our ideas about how to live and how to govern can’t be justified by philosophy. It’s not possible to deduce moral conclusions from first principles. Ethics is not like geometry. Nor is it possible to create rules for a perfect society through empirical research. Societies are too complex for us to predict the consequences of any invented morality. Ethics and constitution making is not an empirical science. Right and wrong are things we learn from infancy. For well socialized members of a moral tradition, they become almost instinctive.
For Oakeshott, our social institutions are like the timbers of ship:
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea: there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion (p60).
The voyage has no destination. Marxists might say that we will finally reach solid ground after a mutiny, while religious fundamentalists see the ship as an ark which will preserve the faithful until the waters recede. But Oakeshott rejects these, and other, consoling myths.
Rationalists (utopian and otherwise) see the design of the ship as flawed. They dream of destroying it and building a new, more sensibly designed vessel. Some believe that a new ship will spontaneously spring to life when the old one is put to the torch. Oakeshott regards these ideas as suicidal. We can (and must) replace the timbers of the ship piece by piece but we cannot replace them all at once without sinking.
Another of Oakeshott’s metaphors is society as a human body. Like people, societies can get sick – they can cease to function. Moral traditions can break down:
In general, the remedy for such a condition must, of course, be treatment which will result in a revival of confidence and a renewal of impetus. And, in general again, such treatment must make use of what is still unimpaired in the sufferer. the notion that a knowledge of how to behave can be permanently replaced by something else just as good, and the notion that the patient must be allowed (or even encouraged) to die in order that he may start life again on new and firmer foundations, will be entertained only by those who are wholly ignorant of the nature or moral activity (p128).
Living morality can’t be learned from a book: "We acquire habits of conduct, not by constructing a way of living upon rules of precepts learned by heart and subsequently practised, but by living with people who habitually behave in a certain manner: we acquire habits of conduct in the same way as we acquire our native language" (p 468).
Norton is right to say that Oakeshott doesn’t discuss the role of the family in sustaining a moral tradition. But then again, he doesn’t need to. Just as we learn to speak a language from our parents and other close members of our community, so too we learn about how to live. Oakeshott wasn’t a social theorist. He wasn’t interested in explaining how institutions like families, schools, and the media pass on a society’s moral traditions. Many of the neoconservatives were social theorists. And they were very interested in how moral traditions flourished or decayed.
Rotten timbers & a mutinous crew – American neoconservatism
Imagine that you share Oakeshott’s view of society as a ship at sea and moral tradition as a more-or-less watertight hull that must be kept intact to function. But imagine also that you see the ship’s timbers as rotten from neglect and the crew as ill-disciplined and mutinous. What should our political leaders do?
After the social upheavals of the 60s, neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb feared that Oakeshott’s detached attitude to morality would prove fatal. Philosophers might be able to live their lives knowing that their moral values have no rational foundations and that their life has no ultimate meaning but ordinary people need some higher purpose. If they don’t they are liable to become nihilistic and destructive.
Kristol believed that American capitalism had drained the meaning out of the nation’s way of life. Many young people no longer believed that the wealthy deserved their riches or that the poor deserved their misery. The invisible and amoral hand of the market decided who won and who lost. And government courts and bureaucracies had ceased to distinguish between moral and immoral conduct. Impersonal rules determined who benefited and who did not.
It was the New Left and the counterculture which rushed in to fill this moral void. Unlike business leaders and politicians they promised a life rich with meaning and purpose. These radicals threatened to tear up the rotten timbers of the old ship but were never going to build a new one without sending society to the bottom. The destruction of the traditional family would leave children without guidance or role models. And the attack on the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor combined with the expansion of the welfare state would create a self-perpetuating underclass – an army of demoralized poor who were incapable of productive work and prone to crime.
The neoconservatives believed that there was no practical alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy. But Americans could not live aboard a ship whose design was a historical accident and whose mission was to stay afloat. The answer was leadership. Politicians, business leaders, and public intellectuals needed to give the nation back its purpose and meaning and restore the authority of traditional morality. They needed to convince Americans that their society was a just society and that it existed to achieve something lasting and important.
My own view (and this is probably controversial) is that necons like Kristol and Himmelfarb agree with Oakeshott’s claim that our particular moral traditions are foundationless and rationally unjustifiable. If they were honest, they would say we defend them because they are our traditions, not because reason tells us they should everybody’s. Where they differ is their judgment about how fragile the tradition is. Oakeshott seemed to feel that his moral tradition was secure – and that if it wasn’t there wasn’t anything much anybody could do to about it. But that was before the chaos of the late 1960s. The neocons argued that the tradition was facing a crisis and that our leaders needed to strengthen it and give it back its purpose.
David Brooks’ ‘national greatness conservatism‘ follows from this way of thinking. Of all the heirs of neoconservatism, Brooks is the most Oakeshottian While Kristol and Himmelfarb were aware of Oakshott’s ideas and confidently dismissed them, Brooks seems to struggle. Last year he found himself arguing with an imaginary Oakeshott over the war in Iraq:
We can’t know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, but it is impossible not to see the warnings entailed in his writings. Be aware of what you do not know. Do not go charging off to remake a society when you don’t understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation and impose something you call democracy that the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.
What would Brooks say in response? That America and its Iraqi allies are "muddling through, devising shambolic, ad hoc solutions to fit the concrete realities, and that we’ll learn through bumbling experience." Brooks doesn’t guess at Oakeshott’s reply.
What Oakeshott and the neoconservatives have in common
Irving Kristol was aware of Oakeshott’s work but probably wasn’t influenced by it. In 1956 when he was editor of Encounter he read Oakeshott’s essay ‘On Being Conservative,’ admired it, and rejected it. Even then Kristol believed that Americans needed a creed, not just a set of vague dispositions. Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that Oakeshott had failed to provide a means for distinguishing good and bad and that, as a result, "we are obliged to look elsewhere for guidance – to invoke mind, principle, belief, religion, or whatever else may be required to sustain civilization."
What neocons and Oakeshott have in common is their belief that culture matters. For Oakeshott morality is about what people desire – or as economists would put it – their preferences. David Brooks argues that economists fail as policy advisers because they ignore the effect of culture on preferences. They treat preferences as given and focus on incentives:
But now we have learned that personal tastes are not unproblematic, and that some problems don’t respond to incentives. We know that schools don’t necessarily improve with increased funding, race relations don’t necessarily improve as more blacks achieve middle- and upper-class status, poverty doesn’t inevitably come down as more money is poured into anti-poverty programs. It now seems obvious to most neoconservatives that culture, the invisible tug of the Zeitgeist, plays a role not sufficiently appreciated by the economics-minded.
Nobody knows what Oakeshott would say about these issues. His essays don’t discuss policy issues like taxation, the welfare state, or crime. The connection between practically minded neocons and Oakeshott is more abstract – culture matters.
The stress on cultural issues is what sets social conservatives apart from libertarians and economic liberals. Social liberals worry about the effect of liberal reform and economic and technological change on their society’s moral culture. They worry about this because they see culture as a far more powerful influence than economic incentives or legislation. For social conservatives like Brooks the most important issue is how to keep the culture healthy – or in Oakeshott’s terms – how to keep the boat afloat.
Update 2: "We should all become conservatives now…" The philosophical conservatism of Anthony Giddens
Like Oakeshott, sociologist Anthony Giddens appreciates the importance of culture for social functioning. For Oakeshott morality is not a set of rules which prevent people doing what they feel like. Instead it is part of an inherited way of living which determines the sorts of things people want to do. Morality is part of the culture and part of what makes individuals who they are.
Giddens worries about what happens when people inherit a way of life which prevents them from taking part in mainstream economic life. "welfare dependency, as a set of attitudes and a culture rather than as simply an economic condition, is a real phenomenon" he writes (p 75). Welfare recipients become alienated from the broader society and its moral habits because of the actions of the state. Welfare benefits are simply doled out with nothing demanded in return and little opportunity for escape to a better life.
But for Giddens there are new set of problems. Oakeshott’s England and its inherited traditions doesn’t exist. If there ever was a consensus on morality and culture it has long since faded away. Giddens writes that:
Individuals cannot rest content with an identity that is simply handed down, inherited, or built on a traditional status. A person’s identity has in large part to be discovered, constructed, actively sustained (p 82).
Today traditions need to be actively reconstructed. Giddens believes that we can’t live without them. "Life politics", he says "centres on the problem: how shall we live after then end of nature and the end of tradition? Such a question is ‘political’ in the broad sense that it means adjudicated between different lifestyle claims, but also in the narrower sense that it intrudes deeply into orthodox areas of political activity" (p 246).
People who think this way often worry that society could lapse into nihilism or warring fundamentalisms. If we don’t attend to our moral traditions – to our culture – then our society could come apart at the seams. Giddens, however, is optimistic. He believes that universal values are emerging from the conversations between traditions and from our shared interests as human beings. We can have a moral tradition in common.
Giddens worries about postmodernism – the Nietzschean view that there are many irreconcilable world-views and traditions and, in the end, it all comes down to power. "What it leads to", he writes, is "a world of multiple fundamentalisms, and this is a world in danger of disintegration through the clash of rival world-views" (p 252). According to Giddens, we can’t just sit above it all and treat everyone’s moral claims as equally valid.
In taking this position Giddens comes close to American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty warns about the risk of becoming too self-conscious about our ethnocentrism:
…we begin to worry whether our attempts to get other parts of the world to adopt our culture are different in kind from the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. If we continue this line of thought too long we become what are sometimes called "wet" liberals. We begin to lose any capacity for moral indignation, any capacity to feel contempt. Our sense of selfhood dissolves. We can no longer feel pride in being bourgeois liberals, in being part of a great tradition, a citizen of no mean culture. We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out (p 203).
Rorty and Giddens on the left, and David Brooks on the right share a common interest in tradition. All believe that traditions need to be actively reconstructed and maintained. Like Brooks, Rorty argues that Americans need myths about their nation which will allow them to be proud of who they are. "National pride", Rorty writes "is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement" (p 3).
For Rorty, the problem with the Nietzscheanized academic left is the demand that western nations accept images of themselves that are incompatible with pride. They focus on slavery, colonialism, and the patriarchy. They explain all moral position taking and authority as the assertion of power. Thinkers like Rorty and Giddens worry that talk like this will erode the things which make left wing activism possible.
When Giddens writes that "We should all become conservatives now … but not in the conservative way" he is arguing for a balance between skepticism and caution on the one hand and commitment to a moral tradition on the other. This kind of governing is a craft rather than a science. What could be more conservative than that?